Game of Thrones: an Introspective

Now that HBO’s Game of Thrones is finished, I thought I’d add one more navel gazing (and rambling) introspective to the glut of opinions abound on the internet. Spoilers ahead.

Season 8 has been widely panned by fans (37% audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes). I have my issues with season 8 as well, but I think, despite what audiences on Rotten Tomatoes thought (86% rating for season 7), it was after the episode “The Winds of Winter” at the end of season 6 where everything went downhill. Not to say that the show wasn’t still entertaining after that, but from a narrative standpoint, the show took a nosedive in that episode. As a reminder, at the end of season 6, Cersei killed off a bunch of people (High Sparrow, Queen Margaery, et al) in the Sept of Baelor, Walder Frey was killed by Arya, Qyburn kills Pycelle. This is after Ramsey was defeated and killed in the previous episode (although I have no issues with how that plotline’s conclusion was handled). Essentially, though, all of the major players are whittled down. Afterwards, we’re left with two opposing sides – the Jon Snow (later Daenerys/Jon Snow) side vs the Cersei side.

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People killed when the Sept of Baelor was destroyed.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention the White Walkers. The Night King going down like a chump from Arya’s sneak attack out of left field has been a huge source of contention in season 8. So was Daenerys’s heel turn, although that was somewhat more predictable than some people may have thought:

To me, neither of these things seem like that big of issues, nor are they something I didn’t (at least somewhat) expect. Especially the Night King not being the main bad guy in the series – I will agree, to some extent, that the way the Night King was killed was sort of dumb. But to me, if the show had had all of the living band together against the White Walkers for the shows final climactic end, whether the living won or lost, it would have basically said everything that came before was just a complete waste of time. My gripe with the end of season 6 was basically the same – all the stuff with the Faith Militant and the High Sparrow amounted to nothing. There were no lasting stakes with that subplot. One could argue that it was their treatment of Cersei that led her to blowing them all up, but that wouldn’t have needed to happen if that subplot had not begun in the first place. And it didn’t give Cersei any sort of character development – she didn’t become repentant nor did it turn her any more bitter and cruel than the deaths of her children already had. Where season 7 began could have been the case if the Faith Militant and High Sparrow subplot had never even come about. Likewise, if the White Walkers had brought the people of Westeros together, that would have meant that everything between Ned Stark getting his head lopped off until the end of season 7 when Cersei is convinced that the threat north of the wall is real was a waste of time. The threat of the White Walkers was never the real story.

Game of Thrones, from an overarching philosophical perspective, was always about 1) power and legitimacy and 2) the cost of peace. In season 2, episode 3, titled “What is Dead May Never Die” this conversation takes place:

Varys: Power is a curious thing my lord. Are you fond of riddles?

Tyrion: Why? Am I about to hear one?

Varys: Three great men sit in a room, a king, a priest and a rich man. Between them stands a common sell-sword. Each great man bids the sell-sword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies?

Tyrion: Depends on the sell-sword.

Varys: Does it? He has neither crown nor gold nor favor with the gods.

Tyrion: He has a sword, the power of life and death.

Varys: But if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend Kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey, the executioner, or something else?

Tyrion: I’ve decided I don’t like riddles.

Varys: Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.

This sums up a great deal about what Game of Thrones was about – or, at least, what it wanted to be about (and is done better in the books). It certainly could have used this idea to make the High Sparrow (and the Iron Bank of Braavos) story-line more interesting and with lasting stakes to the show’s final outcome. But my point is that the Night King didn’t fit anywhere into this idea. What the Night King did do, however, is make philosophical issue 2 that I mentioned above come into play. Few people were happy with the ‘peace’ that came from banding together against the White Walkers. This is a major theme in the show and, to a much larger extent, the books. It’s even lampshaded in the final episode, when the compromise resulting in Jon Snow once again take the black (for murdering Daenerys) must be good because it didn’t make anyone happy. The idea being that peace rarely makes anyone happy. Peace is more than just the absence of fighting, but is instead a constant struggle through compromise – both in diplomatic agreements, but also the compromising of one’s own principles. In the show, but more so in the books, this is explored quite a bit when Daenerys is ruling Meereen and is constantly having to face compromises, which she often either rejects or ends up reneging on, to disastrous effects. This is, of course, a very pessimistic reflection of humankind that says our myriad problems are an intractable aspect of our human nature. We can either choose to adhere to our principles, leading to our doom, or consistently compromise ourselves and live on in misery.

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Aftermath of uprising in Meereen by Sons of the Harpy insurgency.

I want to make a small digression about philosophical issue 1 that I pointed out above. One of the things that makes this such an interesting idea to explore is how it applies to free speech issues and the subject of speech used to incite violence. If I make a Tweet telling people to commit violence against a particular person, am I culpable if someone actually does commit violence against that person? It wasn’t me that did the violent act and one couldn’t even say that I hold power over the person that did (I don’t have a gun to their head). Does a person’s ‘influence’ matter? In other words, is a person with only a few followers less culpable than a person with many followers? Or perhaps a person with notoriety outside of Twitter? At how many followers does a person become culpable? And what about a terrorist leader or mob boss who orders hits and executions – they are only saying words, it’s the underling that actually commits the crime, so what makes them culpable?

But, back to Game of Thrones. Legitimacy, from philosophical issue 1 above, was explored in a number of ways. With King Robert, victory in war gave him legitimacy. With Queen Margaery, winning the people’s love gave her legitimacy (actually, her marriage to Joffrey did, but the people liked her more than him, as was her ploy to attain power). The High Sparrow got it from piety. Daenerys claimed it due to her bloodline (despite her ancestors being conquerors) and, at the end, through terror (as did Cersei after season 6). Robb Stark, and eventually Jon Snow, got it from in-group loyalties (they were king’s of the north, where people view themselves already very independent of southern kings). The Lannisters were known for doing it with money (Tyrion was explicitly shown doing this on a few occasions early on in the show). It was for these reasons that people followed them. These were the ‘shadows on the wall’ that Varys spoke of. Had the Nigh King been the final chapter in the story of Game of Thrones, these explorations, regardless of how hastily explored or sloppily handled, would have amounted to nothing. What the White Walkers did do, though, is provide a source of legitimacy for Daenerys aside from might (her armies and dragons) or her bloodline, which was thin anyway. It was her ability and willingness to help defeat the White Walkers that made (some) people want to follow her, or at least be willing to do so out of necessity (see philosophical theme 2). Without that, Daenerys would simply have been a conqueror, like she was in Meereen, and we all know how that turned out.

The White Walker subplot also gave Cersei the opportunity to attempt her gambit that after Jon Snow, Daenerys et al fought the White Walkers, whoever was leftover would be so weakened that she could defeat them and stay in power. I think this explores another philosophical issue – perhaps I should name it as #3 along with the two from above – that power is not gained through honor or merit as a ruler, but through cunning and ruthlessness. As Cersei said, in the game of thrones, you win or you die. Ned Stark wished the throne to be sat by whoever ‘deserved’ it due to bloodline. He was promptly executed. Cersei was the final enemy because she was more willing to play the game of thrones for the sake of power than anyone. Petyr Baelish sought power for love and revenge; Varys for the good of the realm; Robert in order to eat, drink, and whore his way to an early grave; Tywin to increase his family’s preeminence; Robb for honor and justice (much like Ned); the High Sparrow in order to enforce morality; Daenerys both because of her bloodline and to ‘liberate’ people. Cersei was only interested in power in-itself – even if it were only through her own children – and therefore was able to win the game of thrones, even if not the war.

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Winner in the game of thrones, just not the war.

I think Tyrion’s speech in the final episode, where he concludes that it’s stories that qualify someone to be a ruler, is the answer to Varys’s riddle. Humans are social and cooperative because of evolution, but to whom they follow is bound by stories. Legitimacy comes from a story people tell about someone – the sellsword in Varys’s riddle will follow the orders from the person whose story he believes more strongly. Stories are the ‘shadows on the wall.’ This is why Bran Stark would be reluctant to be king – he, with first-hand access to all of history, knows all the stories. If the stories are ‘shadows on the wall,’ he is the one who, like Plato’s allegory of the cave, has seen that it’s an illusion. Whether this would make Bran a good king or not is perhaps left up to people’s imagination.

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Tyrion answering Varys’s riddle.

This is another pessimistic reflection of humankind. The fictions we create – religion, nationality, ethnicity, money – are more important to us than rationality. Humans will gleefully obey those who affirm their cherished stories over those who will benefit them and the rest of their society. Such is the draw of populism, which plays on the stories people hold sacred. This may have been a feature when humans were rising to the top, but our stories are no longer suited to the densely populated, highly connected world we’ve created for ourselves. Something like nuclear or biological weapons may be the proximate cause of our destruction, but it will be some fiction that those using these weapons tell themselves that ultimately pulls the trigger.

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